In Nobody We Trust

This week’s Pew Research poll showing public satisfaction and trust with government are at all time lows should come as no surprise to anyone.   The American People’s  trust in their  government has been declining since JFK was blown away in Dallas .  As the chart above shows, one assassination, Vietnam War,  Nixon Watergate Scandal and a decade of 1970s Stagflation later public trust had plummeted from  near eighty percent  to the low twenties. Reagan restored some degree of trust, Bush I lost it, Clinton restored some then Bush II lost it.  (Note to Americans: Next time a guy named “Bush” is on the ballot, vote the other way.)

Two things have been driving this trust-deficit:  recurring  business cycles and increasing middle class anxiety.  While the public vents its frustration with the vagaries of their standard of living on Congress and government in genra, the   real  problems confronting America’s faith in its government (and, therefore itself) are far more systemic.  Which means, whatever the November midterm elections is going to have precious little impact on American’s trust in their government, no matter the outcome.

Look at the trust poll above.  Now look at the graph below with the  last 30 years with a rough overlay of economic recessions.

Trust in government always plummets with an economic downturn, as during the recessions of the early 1970s,  late 70s & early 80s, early 90s and today.  Then,  as recovery sets in, trust goes back up.  The Reagan boom saw trust go back up to a ten year high; the Clinton boom sent it even higher.  Americans seem to see the world through the narrow prism of their own pocketbooks.  (And, yes,  we ARE that simple and shallow.)  So, when times are good we trust government.  When they’re not we want to burn it to the ground.

The only other thing that spikes and depresses trust are major foreign policy events such as the 1st Gulf War and 9/11 (spike up) and the protracted Vietnam and Iraqi wars (trust down.)  How many congressmen are or are not reelected really has no impact on any of this.   Barring a major attack on America any time soon, the only thing that will bring a sustained return to trust will be economic recovery.

The second factor in all of this is the simple fact that, since the late 1960s, getting and staying in the broad middle class has become a progressively more tenuous proposition for an increasing number of people.  The pillars of the middle class have been growing incomes, secure home ownership, access to affordable healthcare and education and the promise of retirement.  All of these have come under growing pressure for the last generation.  This has made the middle class antsy.  Antsy people trust less.

Between the Second World War and the early 1970s the standard of living doubled in a generation.  It now takes 3 generations to replicate the gain.  Most Americans are living much better than in 1960or 1970–but it’s taking longer to see the gains of children over their parents.  Political Scientists call this “relative expectation,” the problem of people expecting improvement faster than government can provide it.  This leads, again, to middle class antsiness—like blue-collar support for George Wallace’s rebellion against “big government liberals.” (Read “government helping the poor and people of color and not blue collar whites who were starting to lose jobs not to affirmative action but to globalization.  Those textile jobs disappearing in the Southern US weren’t going to Watts or Harlem, they were going to Japan and Hong Kong.  Now they’re going to Vietnam and Bangladesh, exportation of low-end Chinese goods being SO early 21st century now.)

During really harsh economic times (like the Great Depression) relative expectation turns into “relative deprivation”—where the middle class, now desperate as it sees itself sliding back towards poverty, wants to find enemies to blame (and supports more radical political movements—aka fascist—that promise to restore the power of the Volk by making government more socially intrusive,  powerful—and authoritarian.) Thus the rise of the Fascists in the 1920s & 1930s.  We haven’t seen economies as bad as the 1930s in western democracies.  With each recession, though, more reactionary political movements form (e.g. the Wallace reaction to civil rights, the Militia movement reaction in the 1990s and even, one dare say, the Zonian reaction of this week, essentially criminalizing  being Hispanic while in the Grand Canyon State).

For most American households the Great Recession is far from over.  Even when it is in two or three years, most American households will probably find their buying power no greater than it was in 2007 which, adjusted for inflation, is not a whole lot better than it was in 1997 or even 1987.  Only this time Americans will not have an easy-credit gravy train to hitch on (those mortgages and credit cards becoming more elusive for the masses) which, in the long run, is a good thing. In the short run it’s going to hurt like hell.  And that means a prolonged visit by two really annoying relatives – Aunt Expectation and Uncle Deprivation.

So, for all of those who are hoping that a “Throw the Bums” out movement come November will make everything in America right as rain, lot’s of luck with that.  First, the bums rush ain’t gonna happen.  Congressional reelection rates have been averaging 90%-94% plus for several decades.  Even the 1994 Republican Revolution resulted in an incumbent defeat rate of less than 10%.  If, on the off chance, this November produces a changeover in the 10%-20% range (at the extreme – that’s 80 seats) it will hardly constitute a thorough housecleaning.

Second, even if we started over with a 100% new Congress (and imagine the fun with all those newbies on Capitol Hill—the lobbyists will think they’ve died and gone to paradise and their 77 legislative virgins) trust in government will not, Q.E.D., return.   Until the economy goes back up (meaning unemployment goes down and household economic security as measured by buying power and  mortgage viability goes up) trust stays low.  And until the middle class economic miracle of the 1940s-1950s get’s replicated again, trust never returns to the glory days of yesteryear.

Meanwhile, for those Progressives and Liberals hoping that things will tilt their way once the unpleasantness of the 2010 midterm is behind them, lot’s of luck with that, too.  The economic downturns of the 1970s & 1980s turned America from a center-left New Deal society to a Center-Right Reagan Revolution land.  Baring a quick turn around in the economy—or, worse, a further downturn—America becomes a plain old right society.   Which should give the GOP another grand decade or two of prominence before shifting demographics undercuts it.

Most pundits have fretted about the American left becoming like the European left.  They should be equally concerned if the decline in trust and middle class economic insecurity results in the American left becoming more like the European right.

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